Here’s something that most of us have thought about at one time or another, and that’s whether you should eat more on leg day.
Whenever you train legs you know you’re in for a session of torture.
There’s not many of us who don’t leave the gym either limping or barely able to walk.
Plus, no matter how well you eat, you typically always still feel hungry.
So, should you succumb to your hunger and eat more whenever you train legs?
Let’s find out.
It makes a lot of sense to eat more on leg day as you’re training the largest muscle group, which usually requires the most energy. Taking on additional calories can improve your performance, recovery, and muscle growth. Additionally, if you have a “cheat day”, leg day may be the perfect opportunity to do this. Even if you’re in a cutting phase it makes sense to incorporate a refeed day. It’s best to take this on the day that you’re exerting the most energy and burning the most calories. Plus, if you’re carb-cycling, leg day is perfect for a higher carb day.
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You’re Burning More Calories on Leg Day
For me, it’s a no-brainer.
Yes, you should eat more on leg day.
You’re working the largest muscle group in the body, so you’re going to burn a ton of calories.
Additionally, the metabolic surge you’ll experience from training your legs will burn even more calories.
Furthermore, a big exercise like barbell squats, will also be extremely taxing on the Central Nervous System.
You can also say the same for the exercises where you’re pushing a huge amount of weight, e.g. leg press, hack squat, etc.
Basically, if you don’t eat enough on leg day you’re going to feel depleted of energy and probably very tired too.
You must have noticed this yourself too.
Following your leg training session you could literally eat anything and everything.
In fact, you’ve probably never felt as hungry.
And literally as soon as you come within an inch of food you devour every morsel within seconds.
Plus, you’ll notice that even though you’ve eaten the same as “chest day”, or shoulder day”, or even a massive conditioning day, you’re still hungry.
This all comes down to the huge amount of calories you burn when you train legs.
I wouldn’t say that there is a “set figure”, but depending on the intensity of your leg day workout it’s perfectly acceptable to increase your daily calorie intake by 10-30%.
As I say, by what percentage you should increase your calories comes down you, the intensity of your workout, as well as your powers of recovery.
Eating More On Leg Day Can Produce Better Results
Now, I’ve just spoken of the impact that training legs has on calorie burn and your Central Nervous System.
Plus, I’ve also mentioned that not eating enough will leave you tired and lacking energy.
This is clearly not how you want to feel when you’re training intensely on a regular basis.
So, in effect, eating more on leg day will actually help to improve your performance, recovery, and your muscle growth.
It’s not unheard-of to eat before, during, and straight after a big leg day.
In fact, you could be hindering your performance by trying to train legs on an empty stomach.
You definitely won’t hit your workout with as much intensity, and your strength is also likely to suffer.
This is why many people choose to train legs in the afternoon or evening.
Plus, it also makes a great deal of sense to consume a good percentage of your daily carb intake pre-workout.
Obviously, you don’t want to eat a massive meal, so all your energy goes towards digesting your food.
However, a meal that includes oats, brown/wild rice, sweet potato, or high-fibre fruits should do the job.
You may even find that it makes a great deal of sense to consume a protein shake during your leg workout.
Plus, within an hour of performing your last set you should be eating a high protein meal with carbs to replenish your glycogen stores, and some healthy fats
There’s a lot of eating to do on leg day.
You Can “Get Away” With More on a Heavy Leg Day
If you’re looking to build muscle then you need to take on additional calories.
This will typically mean that you’re looking to consume a lot of lean and healthy foods.
However, when it comes to eating “clean” you can often run into problems.
Basically, depending on your daily calorie intake you could spend much of the day feeling full.
But, you still may not be able to hit your daily calorie count.
As an example you may choose to eat a meal that consists of two large chicken breasts, sweet potato, and broccoli.
You follow this up with a handful of nuts.
Sounds great in principle, and you’ll definitely feel well satiated.
However, the fact that you may need to eat the same type of meal another 3 times just to get your calories in can feel pretty daunting.
You know after a meal like this you’re going to feel full for a good few hours.
This is actually why many pro-bodybuilders turn to junk foods to ensure they get their calories.
With that being said, they will often do this straight after their workout.
Essentially, you can get away with a lot more after a very heavy and intense strength-training session.
Now, I wouldn’t suggest that you start chowing down on McDonald’s and KFC regularly.
However, if you’re going to have a cheat day or a cheat meal then I would suggest that leg day would be the ideal time.
Have a Refeed Day If You’re on a Cut
Taking another leaf out of the pro-bodybuilder book you could look to have a refeed day if you’re in a cutting phase.
When you are on a cut you’ll generally restrict calories.
The aim here is to reduce body fat, perhaps lose some weight, while getting leaner and preserving the muscle mass that you hopefully grew during your bulk.
However, you are still training regularly, but possibly not with as much intensity.
Unfortunately, the cutting phase can have negative consequences in terms of your energy levels.
So, quite often bodybuilders will introduce a refeed day.
This is a day when they take a break from the calorie-controlled diet.
The aim here is to overeat, but in a controlled manner, and there’s usually a heavier focus on consuming carbs.
This would fit in perfectly with the day that you decide to train legs.
You could be worried about the impact a refeed day has.
So, when better to introduce a refeed on the day when you’re working the largest muscles and burning the most calories.
Carb-Cycle to Incorporate Leg Day
Carb-Cycling is typically used to lose weight, burn body fat, while maintaining your physical performance.
So, you would generally “cycle” between high-carb days, low-carb days, and even no-carb days.
If you have a no-carb day you shouldn’t really be doing anything too physically demanding, so this would usually be your gym rest day.
Even on low-carb days, if you are exercising, you will need to be wary of the intensity with which you train.
However, your high-carb days are when you can potentially train with maximum intensity.
So, if you happen to be carb-cycling, or are considering it, the days you train legs are perfect to incorporate your high-carb days.
When & How to Eat More on Leg Day
Okay, I’ve covered the reasons why it’s sensible to eat more on leg day, as well as certain ways you can achieve this.
However, let’s now take a closer look at this.
Now admittedly what I’m about to explain I don’t actually follow myself, but this is because you have to find what works best for YOU.
Basically, we all typically react differently to training and eating, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to doing this.
That being said, here’s a great way to get in those extra calories on leg day.
Furthermore, you’ll actually be getting in the vast majority of your daily calories around your workout.
Before Your Workout
As I’ve mentioned, what you eat before your workout is crucial, as this is what will fuel your workout.
The last thing you want as you hit the gym is to feel hungry and completely lacking in energy.
Therefore, you could realistically say that your pre-workout meal is your 2nd or 3rd meal of the day, depending on how many meals (I include snacks as meals) you’re going to consume during the day.
Your pre-workout meal should also generally be either your largest or 2nd largest meal of the day.
This being the case you’ll want to consume your pre-workout meal at least 2-3 hours before your workout.
I’m mentioned that digestion can take up a lot of energy, so you don’t want all your energy to go towards digesting your pre-workout meal the second you hit the weights.
Furthermore, is there anything worse than feeling full, heavy, and bloated while you’re trying to workout?
Your pre-workout meal should consist of at least 25 grams of protein, but up to 35-40 grams is fine too.
Keep your protein source low-fat, so something like chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon, soy, quinoa, etc.
You should also look to consume approximately 30-40% of your total daily carbs during this meal.
I would also suggest that you focus on high-fibre carbs pre-workout.
This ensures that you dont get that spike and drop in blood sugar levels, but rather that they remain constant throughout.
Plus, consume 1-2 portions of vegetables in your pre-workout meal.
Finally, if you’re going to take a pre-workout drink then consume this approximately 20-30 minutes prior to your workout.
During Your Workout
I know it probably seems strange to be talking eating during your workout, but this is something that many people do.
This is especially true during longer and more intense workouts, such as leg day.
Now, before you get the wrong idea this doesn’t mean that you’re going to need a plate, knife and fork at the gym.
Rather that you want a quick hit of protein, carbs, and electorlytes.
A really easy way to achieve this is mix a scoop of protein powder with a sports energy drink.
This is a fantastic way to give yourself an extra boost of energy when you may normally start flagging halfway through your workout.
After Your Workout
As for your post-workout meal you should be consuming this within 60 minutes of your workout.
And the “rules” are fairly similar to your pre-workout meal.
So, you’ll want to consume approximately 25-40 grams of protein in order to maximise strength gains, muscle growth and repair.
Furthermore, you’ll want to consume 30-40% of your total daily carbs once again.
This means that 60-80% of your total daily carb intake will be consumed nefore and after your workout.
This is also why I have explained that you can “get away” with eating certain things around your workout.
You’re either going to use this food for energy for your workout or your elevated metabolism is going to help you burn those “additional” calories.
This is also why you can have a mix of high-fibre and low-fibre carbs following your workout.
The low fibre carbs will provide a spike in blood sugar levels, which will give you a burst of energy after your workout, whereas the high-fibre carbs will ensure you feel and remain full.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many Calories are Burned in a 1-Hour Leg Workout?
How many calories you will personally burn from a 1-hour leg workout will always be subjective.
In fact, this is something that I discussed when looking at how many calories 100 squats burn.
Basically, how many calories someone burns during exercise will depend on their:
- Current Level of Physical Conditioning
- Intensity of Workout
As an example, a 25-year old male, who weighs 200lbs, is extremely fit and therefore has a high metabolic rate, and trains every set to failure will potentially burn more than double the amount of calories than a 60-year old unfit female who weighs 140lbs and is training with medium-intensity.
Okay, admittedly this is an extreme comparison, but hopefully you get my meaning.
You can use this website to give you a general idea of calories burned for various activities, although this won’t be completely accurate.
This is simply because it doesn’t take into consideration a person’s age, sex, metabolism or their level of physical conditioning.
However, let’s put the above two examples through this calculator to see what it comes up with.
So, firstly we have our male lifter, although the only details I could add was that they weighed 200lbs, and would be working out for an hour with vigorous weight training.
As you can see it is calculated that this person will burn 545 calories during their workout.
Now, when it comes to our female lifter with a weight of 140lbs and not performing the workout with as much intensity here’s what we get.
So, a grand total of 198 calories burned in their workout.
Are you starting to understand how different factors will produce different results?
That being said, I would say that our female lifter’s results are somewhat skewed due to not being able to add various important details.
So, in reality, you can assume that the vast majority of people, male or female, would typically burn between 350-700 calories during a one-hour leg workout.
Obviously, the more you weigh, the more muscle that you carry, and the higher intensity that you train at, the more calories you will burn.
Why Do I Crave Carbs After Leg Day?
Craving carbs after exercise is nothing new, but have you ever noticed how much that carb-love increases after leg day?
There’s actually a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.
Essentially, your leg workout will burn a huge number of calories and you’ll typically use most, if not all, of your glycogen stores.
Your glycogen stores are created from the food that you eat, especially the carbs that you consume.
So, it makes sense that if you have depleted your energy stores, which were created by carbohydrates in the first place, that in order to replenish them you’re going to need to consume carbs.
Now, I did mention earlier that you can get away with “cheating” on leg day, although you definitely don’t want to overdo it.
Sure, having the occasional cheat meal here-and-there is fine, and even a complete cheat day is okay, as long as your nutrition is completely on-point the rest of the time.
When it comes to carbs, as I’ve mentioned above, I would always stick to high fibre carbs before your workout.
This allows your blood sugar levels to stay fairly consistent, which is great when it comes time to work out a bit later.
However, following your leg workout I see nothing wrong with having a mix of high fibre and low fibre carbs.
The low fibre carbs will immediately spike your blood sugar levels and start to replenish your depleted glycogen stores.
Great examples of low fibre carbs include white rice, pasta, bread, fresh fruits without the skin on or tinned fruits.
And then the high fibre carbs will ensure that you feel full, so you’re less likely to feel hungry or snack.
Some examples of high fibre carbs include whole-wheat rice, bread, or pasta, oatmeal, popcorn, lentils, beans, green peas, and raspberries.
How Do I Know if I Hit Legs Hard Enough?
I must admit that in my introduction above my mention of “session of torture”, “limping”, and “barely being able to walk” after a leg training session was a little tongue-in-check.
However, I’m sure you know as well as me that this is actually often the case after you’ve trained legs.
That being said, this definitely isn’t always the case, and this should never be your measure of what a good leg day looks like.
For as many times when I’ve struggled to walk, or to get down the stairs, after training my legs, there are other times when I feel absolutely fine and I can walk “normally”.
In fact, I don’t feel any soreness, and although I’ve worked my legs, it’s not causing me any issues.
This does not mean that I didn’t train my legs hard enough.
Essentially, don’t look at DOMS as being the ultimate goal, even when training legs.
There are so many factors that can affect the way you feel following a workout, so it’s unlikely you’ll feel exactly the same at the end of every session.
The best thing to do is to choose your exercises beforehand.
Calculate how many reps and sets you want to do of each exercise and have very specific rest times.
So, if you’re training squats for strength then keep your rest between sets to 3-5 minutes.
If you’re going to hit the leg press for 15-rep sets, ensure that your rest periods don’t go over 2 minutes.
Basically, you want to ensure that you’re using proper intensity, so whatever rep scheme you’re using you’ll want the last rep or two of each set to be a bit of a struggle, but not to failure.
Then ensure that you’re rested well enough to carry out your next set, but not so much that you almost feel “cold” again.
Realistically, even if you’re hitting 12 working sets in total for 3-4 exercises, but you’re working with high intensity with sensible rest periods you will have done enough.
Nevertheless, the proof is always in the pudding, i.e. it’s your results that will tell you whether you’re working hard enough.
So, if you’re regularly experiencing gains, in terms of strength and hypertrophy, but you’re not feeling as though you’ve had a decent workout, you clearly have due to the progression you’ve made.
If you’re not able to go up in weight regularly or you’re not seeing any muscle gain then it’s time to reevaluate your training (and nutrition).
Can I Do Leg Day Without Eating?
Okay, I’ve alluded to the fact that it probably isn’t great to train legs on an empty stomach.
Basically, it’s going to be a tough and intense workout and therefore you require as much energy as possible.
And the easiest way to provide yourself with this energy is to have a decent-sized meal with protein, carbs, and healthy fats at least a couple of hours before your workout.
That being said, this all very much depends on you as an individual.
What I mean by this is your habits and what you’re used to doing.
As an example, I have been working out first thing in the morning in a fasted state for a few years now and I find that I prefer it this way.
I’m also able to train legs with the required intensity and I don’t feel as though my leg workout is being impacted by the lack of food pre-workout.
How do I know this?
Because my legs are growing and I’m recovering well enough to train legs twice a week.
In other words, your progression and energy levels throughout the day will tell you whether training legs on an empty stomach is for you.
The best way to find out is to obviously test this for yourself.
In fact, I would recommend trying a leg workout one week without eating anything beforehand.
Then the following week eat a big meal at least two hours before your workout.
And the week after that eat a medium-sized meal, perhaps a snack that contains protein, carbs, and fats, e.g. a wholewheat bagel with peanut butter, bananas, and a dash of honey.
Ensure that you keep a log of each workout, including exercises used, resp, sets, and weight lifted.
By doing this over the course of a few weeks you’ll be able to determine what works best for you.
Of course, I’d always advise that you should eat before leg day, but I certainly don’t, so what’s best for one person may not be for another.
Key Learning Points
- It makes a great deal of sense to eat more on leg day, as you’re working the largest muscle groups in the body and therefore you’ll burn a huge number of calories.
- Taking on more calories on leg day will improve your overall performance, help recovery and muscle growth.
- If you’re currently on a cut, and therefore restricting calories, you can incoporate a refeed day when you train legs.
- If you’re carb-cycling, therefore restricting how many carbs you eat of certain days, a leg day workout is the ideal day to “cycle” a higher number of carbs.
- You can often “get away” with eating certain things in leg day, as you’ve burned so many calories and your metabolic rate is so high. This is also why many bodybuilders incorporate junk food into their diet, as a way to get enough daily calories without ruining their progress.
- It makes a lot of sense to get most of daily calories around your leg workout. Consume 30-40% of your daily carbs both before and after your workout, while eating 25-40 grams of protein with each meal.
- Focus on high-fibre carbs before your workout and have a mix of high-fibre and low-fibre carbs folowing your workout.
- You may notice that you crave carbs following leg day, or any high-intense workout, as you will have depleted your glycogen stores. Your “craving” is your body’s way of telling you that you need to “top up” those glycogen stores.
- You can certainly attmept leg day without eating and this is in fact a regular practice of mine. However, it isn’t recommended if you’re used to training after eating. In truth, this is all about building habits, so what may feel fine for one person won’t feel great for another.
- Realistically, the only way to know whether you’ve hit legs hard enough is the progression you’ll eventually see. DOMS are not always a sign of a great workout, whereas not really feeling your muscles ache is not a sign of a poor workout either.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.